Road Weather

Think back to the last time you were terrified by the weather. No, not one of those times that the thunderstorms came through after dark and the flashes of lightning never stopped and the noise of the thunderclaps was deafening. They were close! You were afraid, so you left your bedroom and sought the company and comfort of your parents.

Not the first time. The last time. Today you’re the parent, or old enough to be, and the kids come to you.

The last time? Chances are good that you were in a car. Picture it. I remember back to a time my wife and I were living in Boulder. Denver was socked in by a terrible snowstorm, and she was flying in from a meeting in Omaha. Communication wasn’t that great in those days. In our last conversation before she took off, I committed to picking her up at Stapleton airport. Pretty much knowing that I was on a Quixotic mission – that her flight would be diverted – I headed in through the storm. It was crazy. The whole of highway 36 was already littered with abandoned and wrecked automobiles, many SUV’s, and four-wheel drive vehicles. Easy to see what was happening. Traction wasn’t all that bad, so those who had four-wheel drive could make pretty good speed. Problem was, those with only two-wheel drive were having problems. They were spun out or stopped. And visibility was near zero. Drivers would come barreling through the gloom, be forced to swerve, and four-wheel drive or no, spin out off the shoulder, sometimes getting as much as a hundred feet away from the road before coming to a stop. I-25 was no better. It took nearly three hours to get to the terminal (normally a forty-five minute drive) and to find that my wife had landed in Albuquerque and would overnight there. Drove home around midnight, and then back to the airport the next morning, through what looked like a Mad Max movie set. Hundreds of cars had been wrecked and abandoned that night. What a landscape!

But that wasn’t when I was terrified. It was the time or two in Colorado when I found myself driving into a thunderstorm, next to my wife, with the kids in the back seat. In seconds, the rain mixed with hail was hosing the car and the windshield like a fire hydrant. I was losing traction, and visibility was nonexistent. I couldn’t see either the cars that had been in front of me just moments earlier, or for that matter the cars I knew were behind me. The noise was deafening. I was in trouble if I kept moving, and I was in trouble if I stopped.

And I was responsible – not some emergency manager, not some other public official. My family had put their trust in my hands and I was letting them down.

Been there? Well, you have a lot of company. Each year, some 7000 or so people are killed and more than half a million are injured in automobile accidents in which weather was ruled to be either the cause or a contributing factor.

Take a moment to let the enormity of these statistics sink in. On average, perhaps 500 people are killed by weather each year sitting at home or at work. On average, maybe Americans only spend two hours of a 24-hour day in their automobiles. In very rough terms, that means that our vulnerability to weather when we’re in cars is about 50-100 times what it is when we’re standing still. Or contrast the highway figures with airline fatalities, or accidents of other types. There is no comparison.

Now, ask yourself when you’ve last been aggravated by the weather. Chances are good you were in a car then, too. These days I live in DC, which offers one of the worst commutes in the country – and that’s on the good days. And in DC, nothing turns normal congestion into hours of gridlock more effectively than just a little rain or a skift of snow at rush hour.

Well, today I’ve been at a meeting in Indianapolis of engineers and meteorologists who hope to eliminate some of this fear and loathing. The occasion? A workshop sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration, under the leadership of Paul Pisano and his boss, Mark Kehrli, looking at road weather. The reason for hope? The group is contemplating a future in which far more information about traffic conditions and road weather will be available in the passenger compartment of our cars. There’s a lot to be excited about. Weather forecasts are getting better every year. So is the knowledge and understanding of how traffic conditions, vehicle characteristics, driver behavior, and weather intersect. The technology for capturing information on all these pieces of the puzzle, digesting that information, and making it available to drivers as well as those in charge of traffic flow and road maintenance is now at hand, for reasonable cost. The workshop participants come from several federal agencies, from state departments of transportation, and from the private sector. They comprise government and business executives, meteorologists, engineers, social scientists and social workers. They and the larger community they represent, if allowed to implement their vision, promise to make driving safer and more pleasurable, and, at the same time, more economical and energy efficient for both the traveling public and for commercial transportation.

Sound too good to be true? Well a few challenges do remain. First, there’s still some research. Scientists need to develop a better ability to forecast conditions in the lowermost levels of the atmosphere that experience the friction and temperature of the ground – the so-called atmospheric boundary layer. [Interestingly, it turns out that such understanding would have many additional practical benefits, for those operating farms of wind turbines, for those forecasting the motion and dispersion of clouds of toxic pollutants in the urban setting, and so on.]

We also need some bits of engineering. We could use many more meteorological sensors along the nation’s highways, streets and roads, especially sensors reporting on road surface conditions. In addition, today’s days automobiles contain quite a bit of weather information, if only it can be tapped. What’s the air temperature? Are the windshield wipers on? At what speed? How about the headlights? The anti-lock braking systems? The nation’s trucks and automobiles could be turned into a network of 100 million sensors, provided we add some infrastructure to extract, transmit, and collect the data – and digest their meaning.

But the more daunting issues lie in the policy arena. These span the gamut. How do we tap the information from each automobile, including its whereabouts, without infringing on the privacy of the driver? Some 50 state departments of transportation control most of the roads; how do we ensure that data gathering and handling are consistent across state borders? Why should auto manufacturers put the needed equipment in cars, if the state-by-state infrastructure isn’t in place? And (chicken-and-egg problem here) how can the states justify such investments if the auto manufacturers haven’t yet committed to their part? How do we guarantee that the new in-car weather and traffic information is a help to drivers and not just another dangerous distraction? Along those lines, what about any unforeseen liability issues? And when and how do will traffic managers be allowed to ask or demand that individual drivers take routes that are not in their best personal interest in order to serve some larger good? How will individual freedoms be protected in these new information-rich regimes? Behind many or all of these issues are those stemming from the needed public-private partnerships. How do we protect the public good while at the same time repaying individuals and private-sector concerns for their contributions to the infrastructure, information, and services? And speaking of services, where is the boundary separating those services which should be provided by the government, and those to be provided for a fee by the private sector?

What’s needed is real leadership at the top – across the federal agencies (Transportation, Commerce, and Energy, and maybe Homeland Security as well), but also reaching out into the private sector, to the truckers and other transportation companies, and to the vehicle manufacturers, and extending as well to the fifty individual states and their state departments of transportation.

Sound familiar? Step back – you’ll see that this workshop is a microcosm of conversations going on globally among seven billion people, conversations at the nexus of weather, water, climate, energy, agriculture, public safety, and environmental protection. In each case there’s increasingly urgent need – chances are, we’re not going to enjoy the world that’s likely if we take no deliberate action. In each case, we’re not likely to get everything we want. But, in each case, if we act effectively – if we tackle the science and the engineering, and if we master the policy arena as well – we can enjoy the road ahead.

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  1. Pingback: On the Road Again! | Living on the Real World

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